The Overland Limited

PrintPrintEmailEmail

When, in July, 1947, the Southern Pacific trains Nos. 27 and 28, the Overland Limited, disappeared from the schedule under that title, one of the great, romantic names of the Old West began to slip quietly into oblivion. The San Francisco Overland, which took its place, was hardly the proud, all-Pullman varnish run of de luxe implications that had come into being on the Southern Pacific’s timetables in 1899, flashing between San Francisco and Chicago on the fastest known schedules, with the names of the great and powerful of the earth on its sailing lists. What remained was a cross-country train of ordinary vintage that was to undergo successive stages of downgrading until, today, it is nothing but an overnight stub run from Oakland, California, to Ogden, Utah, operating only in the summer and at Christmas-time. It is all too familiar a story in the recent history of American railroads.

But, although the Overland Limited is now stabled in the roundhouses of eternity, there was a time when no name in the lexicon of the Old West had greater power to flutter pulses and evoke the images of a more spacious time in the American legend. In it was implied the whole roll call of continental dimension and manifest destiny, which was only thirty years old when the first Overland ran west out of Ogden into the setting sun over the Nevada salt Oats, fts syllables had about them the ring of authority that was possessed by those of Wells Fargo and Union Pacific. Like the Shining Mountains, it glittered in the recollections of men: the peer, in the incomparable heraldry of the trans-Mississippi, of the Little Hig Horn, Wounded Knee, and the Santa Fe Trail.

The inaugural run of the Overland Limited, which then bore the train numbers 1 and 2 to indicate that it was a flagship of the various carriers over which it operated, was on October 15, 1899, and may well have been inspired by Edward H. Harriman, who was already in control of the Union Pacific and was shortly to acquire the Southern Pacific as well. It traversed the rails of the Chicago & North Western • from Chicago to Omaha, and those of the Union Pacific as far as Ogden, where it became the pride of the Southern Pacific. Travel agents everywhere were urged to route their patrons to California via the Overland. “They will discover in it the ne plus ultra of travel luxury,” read the company’s promotional literature.

• Later this pan of Hie ruute lollowed the Milwaukee Road.

The Overland was named, of course, for the midcontinental route that it followed to California, the Great Central Overland & Pike’s Peak trace that had been worn smooth by covered wagons and by the romantic riders of the Pony Express. All the way across Nebraska the wagon ruts were still visible when the first Overland whistled out of Omaha, and in Wyoming and Utah they ran for miles no farther removed than the ends of the ties. In Echo Canyon and Weber Canyon the Union Pacific construction crews had guided their teams where, only a few years before, the covered wagons had lumbered, and through the Nevada Humboldt, the old trail was never far from the windows of the palace tars until, at Fort Churchill, it diverged and went south to cross the Sierra below Carson City.

In the glorious noontide of its operations as an extra-fare, all-Pullman limited flyer—that is to say, during the Harriman regime and until well into the third decade of this century—the Overland’s equipment was specially outshopped for it by Pullman and bore the train’s name as well as that of its owning carriers on its nameboards. Sleepers such as Glenview and Dakota , and proud, brass-railed observation lounges such as Dynamene , were household words to transcontinental travellers. Its diners were the last word in splendor both gustatory and decorative, its buffets were felt to be almost Babylonish in their voluptuous appointments, and there was a barber, a ladies’ maid, and showers for both sexes aboard. So great was the demand for space on the Overland in the late 1920’s that for a time it ran in several sections, and there was also an Advance Overland Limited, just as for some years on the New York Central there was an Advance Twentieth Century Limited.

Other great name trains were to share the Overland route: the Pacific Express, the Pacific Limited, the San Francisco Limited, the Forty-Niner, and the City of San Francisco; but none shared the resounding implications of its name. On its Pullmans slept, ate, and were gentled with vintage wines and Havana Puros the great of the world: J. P. Morgan and Robert Ingersoll, James Gordon Bennett and John W. Mackay, Sir Edwin Arnold and Mile. Emma Nevada, Ethel Barrymore and Elihu Root, President William McKinley and Enrico Caruso. Only the Twentieth Century Limited knew the tread of as many celebrities. But the New York Central maintained a careful record of its passengers—which, alas, was not the western practice.